It’s been a tough go for quite some time for singer-songwriter Jesse Colin Young. He has bounced back, though, with a hot touring band and an upcoming album, Dreamers.
Young — best known for the 1967 song “Get Together” during his years with the Youngbloods — had a successful solo career for decades before stopping performances in 2009. He was suffering from a long-term, misdiagnosed illness that was later diagnosed as lyme disease.
Young’s musical inactivity ceased after he watched his son Tristan and other students perform at a senior recital at Boston’s Berklee College of Music in spring 2016. He realized he had to get back on stage and play his music and then formed a band with the talented Berklee graduates, including Tristan on bass.
Young says he was finally able to think again after years of taking six antibiotics, and he’s still fighting the tick-borne disease.
The band started rehearsing in fall 2016 after Young was invited to play at Austin’s South By Southwest Music Festival and played their first gigs together at the festival the following year.
At Infinity Hall in Hartford, Connecticut, in November, the young musicians showed they are a crack rock band with strong vocal harmonies. The band injected energy and new life into Young’s songs, and the performance made me wonder whether it’s time to reassess and elevate his importance as an American songwriter.
Young sang folk music in Greenwich Village coffeehouses in the early 1960s and released two major-label solo albums, Soul of a City Boy and Young Blood before he formed the Youngbloods in 1965. The Youngbloods made 10 albums, and Young released 16 solo ones.
His upcoming Dreamers, produced by Canadian singer/songwriter/guitarist Colin Linden, is being released digitally Feb. 15 with a vinyl edition scheduled to soon follow. The entire live band plays on the album: lead guitarist Aleif Hamdan, saxophonist Jack Sheehan, keyboardist Jenn Hwan Wong, bassist Tristan Young, drummer Donnie Hogue and backup vocalists Virginia Garcia Alves and Sally Stempler.
“Dreamers came about because I felt a need to talk with my audience and anyone else who would listen about some very important issues that concern all of us today in a clear and loving way,” Young tells me. “I think these songs are some of the best writing I have ever done, and my young band of Berklee College of Music graduates is really amazing.”
I ask Young what messages he wants to convey in the songs “Dreamers” and “Shape Shifters.”
“Dreamers” is about how Young’s family came to America during the past four centuries from Britain, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands
“They were all dreamers,” he says. “Look around you and see what the dreamers from all over the world have built. We need to keep the so-called dreamers here and renew the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. We need their energy and their dreams.”
“Shape Shifters” points a finger at White House lies.
“We are in such a polarized place in our country,” Young says. “With ‘Shape Shifters,’ I wanted to call out the problem of so-called alternative facts. There is a fountain of lies pouring out of the current administration in Washington on a daily basis. It horrifies me that so many of us are caught in these snares.”
When Young was nearly done with writing songs for the new album, his wife, Connie, said she wished he would write a song for her “sisters.”
“She opened her arms wide and said, ‘All my sisters … and let them know you support them and stand with them,’” Young recalls. “So, ‘For My Sisters,’ our latest single, was born.”
Young recites some of the lyrics:
And though the darkness surrounds us / we feel the love that has bound us / We won’t take it any more / You can’t fake it any more / Time to even up the score / Don’t mistake it / We won’t take it any more
Young’s most well-known single, “Get Together,” which was written by Chester Powers of the Quicksilver Messenger Service, remains popular 51 years after it was released.
“Fans still love the Youngbloods’ version,” he says. “It never seems to get old. My songs are crucial to the catalog as well. ‘Darkness, Darkness’ has been recorded by so many wonderful musicians. I wrote ‘Sunlight’ I when I first came to California to play during the Summer of Love in 1967. ‘Quicksand,’ ‘All My Dreams Blue’ — all these are fan favorites.”
A very diverse bunch of artists recorded cover versions of “Darkness, Darkness,” including Robert Plant, Mott the Hoople, Richie Havens, Eric Burdon, the Screaming Trees, Golden Earring, the Cowboy Junkies and Richard Shindell.
Of the songs Young released on his solo albums, “Song for Juli” was “a musical turning point,” because jazz “became a major influence,” he says.
“The great band I played with after the Youngbloods went on to record my Light Shine (1974) and Songbird (1975), albums that were also fan favorites. The music is refreshingly adventurous, and it drew folks into a way of life that they could relate to, and perhaps, emulate. Who could resist California’s hills and forests, the community and family life of country living? I couldn’t.”
Light Shine was released during the year that Young and the Beach Boys opened for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, a tour that kicked off the era of huge outdoor stadium concerts. I saw him play in Denver’s Mile High Stadium during that tour, and ask him what he recalls about that show.
“It was an honor to play with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young,” the non-related Jesse Colin Young says. “I remember the audience was especially welcoming. Always loved the Beach Boys harmonies and Brian’s writing. CSNY were all great talents separately, but together they were amazing.”
I ask Young which concert by another artist was the best one he has ever attended, and he points to Yo-Yo Ma with the San Francisco Symphony.
“I think the first time I saw him was in 1992,” Young recalls. “I saw him again in 2015 at Boston Symphony Hall. Every note Yo-Yo plays is a testament to his love of life and, of course, music. In my book, no one can touch him.”
The concert that most influenced Young as a musician, however, was one he attended in his teens.
“I saw Richie Valens and Chuck Berry at the Brooklyn Paramount when I was 16,” he says. “That was my first concert. I had been playing guitar for a year, and Chuck Berry just blew me away. When he sat down to play “Deep Feeling” on an 8-string steel guitar, I realized that was the reason I couldn’t figure out how to play it on my regular electric. I knew from that day forward what I wanted to do with my life. Going to concerts has become artistic research for me. I’m always learning.”